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Masao OHKI (1901-1971)
Japanese Rhapsody (1938) [12:57]
Symphony No. 5 Hiroshima (1953) [39:08]
New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, 1-2 May 2005
NAXOS 8.557839[52:05]

All three pieces on this disc are world premieres, part of the Naxos mission to bring Chinese and Japanese music to international prominence. Itís a worthy goal, considering that half the worldís population isnít in the western world. All three pieces are also premiere recordings, although they have been performed regularly; no less than Stokowski gave the premiere of the Hiroshima Symphony.

England underwent the Blitz, but Japanese cities suffered firebomb raids from 1942. Since Japanese houses were made of wood and paper, civilian casualties arenít measured by the thousands but by the hundreds of thousands. The actual impact of the later atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 may not have killed as many as in the fire-bombings, but the long term implications were horrific. Masao Ohkiís Hiroshima Symphony was his personal attempt to come to terms with what it meant.

It is carefully constructed, as if "boxes within boxes" can make sense of the chaos. The Prelude starts with unsettling calm, tense cello and bass pizzicatos gradually adding a sense of time ticking away urgently. Ohki is too subtle to "depict" the actual impact. Instead, the second part is a meditation in the lowest registers of winds and strings, a solo trumpet adding a sort of cry of anguished disbelief. He titles it Ghosts Ė it was a procession of ghosts, referring to the images of survivors and wounded walking silently and mindlessly through the flattened landscape. Suddenly driving strings introduce the next section, where at last percussion and brass surge powerfully. Ohkiís mental picture was of waves of fire, expressed by rapid chromatic runs and trills, tremolos and glissandos. This is also the imagery of wind, and transformation for in those moments, Japanese life was changed forever. Another darkly meditative section develops the themes in Ghosts, before the strange and disturbing fifth section, Rainbow. Ohki quotes a description of the time, when "All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow". A plaintive solo violin, then a solo clarinet evoke the unworldly half light. Ohki isnít depicting the rainbow as such, but perhaps the survivors inchoate response to it, which is far more complex.

The seventh section is Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls. Against a background of "flat-lining" strings, keening and wailing, the disembodied sounds of flute, piccolo and clarinet rise tentatively. Itís a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years. The final movement, Elegy, draws in themes from the earlier sections, yet also develops them with deeper emphasis. As Morihide Katayama writes in the booklet notes: "the conflict is unresolved, and whether the terror is broken down or not depends on subsequent human conscience". The composer wasnít to know, in 1953, that survivors would suffer illnesses even into subsequent generations, or that bigger and deadlier bombs would be developed within years. As we face a world still fond of sabre-rattling and leaders who havenít learned, the message of Hiroshima is, if anything, even more important. This is a deeply felt symphony, all the more moving because of its objectivity and universal qualities. It should take its place in the repertoire of music written in response to war and its devastation. "History repeats itself for those who donít listen".

It is all the more fascinating as a human document of Ohkiís personal development. Like most Chinese and Japanese composers of his time, he was far more influenced by Russian, and French composers than by the Austro-Germanic style. This isnít the place to analyse why, save to say that understanding Russian and French idiom is a key to understanding East Asian music in this period. This disc therefore usefully transposes the Hiroshima Symphony with Ohkiís earlier Japanese Rhapsody. This was written in 1938, at the height of the Japanese war against China. While itís not military music by any means, its confident handling of "Russian" mainstream influences and Japanese traditional style, seems curiously archaic now. It is very much a piece of a bygone, less questioning age. It shows just how far Ohki travelled, both as musician and as human being. In later years, he would return wholeheartedly to his socialist, pacifist values with subsequent works such as his Vietnam Symphony. It is to be hoped that this too will eventually be recorded and released.

In producing this series, Naxos is doing far more than bringing East Asian music into the western consciousness. It can change the insular way the west thinks of the rest of the world, and thus bring about a better appreciation of the world and its many cultures.

Anne Ozorio


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